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Even an Eviction Defense Group Can’t Stop Itself from Being Displaced by a Startup
Lamar Anderson | Photo: Seagate Properties | November 19, 2015
The dark side of the Twitter tax break.
Two tenants’ rights groups, the Eviction Defense Collaborative and Tenants Together, are losing their mid-Market office space to coworking startup WeWork, in a twist of events that might be ironic if it weren’t so…inevitable. Add in the fact that the building that tempted WeWork falls within the bounds of the contentious Twitter tax break district, and you have a clash of old versus new San Francisco so self-referential and potent that we think we just heard David Campos’s megaphone short out. In fact, we’ll go ahead and call it: Welcome to Peak San Francisco.
Come January, the New York–based coworking outfit WeWork will take over the 12th floor of the Hewes building at 995 Market, which has served as the headquarters for the Eviction Defense Collaborative for a decade. Last year, 5,000 tenants came through its doors, says executive director Paul Cohen, and of those, the group helped just under 2,000 households challenge their impending evictions. WeWork, meanwhile, already occupies several levels in the building and has been renovating each floor as it captures more space—the 12th floor is, of course, next. Building owner Long Market Property Partners did not offer to renew the Eviction Defense Collaborative’s lease, which comes up at the end of this year, and by extension that of Tenants Together, which subleases from the collaborative. The two groups are currently seeking new office space and will almost certainly split up.
For a guy whose organization is being ousted by the very same forces it exists to fight, Cohen strikes a pragmatic note. “Market forces had us at $2 per square foot in this building for the last 10 years,” Cohen says, the sounds of an electric saw audible in the background from the work on the floor below. “WeWork was prepared to pay roughly $4 for the same space, which they’re renovating, and the market has gone higher than that.” A representative for WeWork has not confirmed the $4-per-square-foot figure and hasn’t yet offered a comment in response to questions from San Francisco. Long Market Property Partners also declined to comment.
Cohen, who joined the collaborative in July, says the group approached the owner several times about renewing the lease before his tenure began. “I’ve attempted conversations like this, too, and there’s been a refusal to have further discussions,” he says. Then one day it all became real. Cohen went to check out WeWork’s website, where he saw a familiar address. “They had this building as 'coming soon,' he recalls. “And they listed the floor that we’re on.”
A listing page for 995 Market advertises the building’s location inside the Payroll Tax Exclusion Zone, aka the home of the Twitter tax break. Passed in 2011, the measure spurred investment in mid-Market by giving companies that move in a temporary break from payroll taxes, but also quickly became a lightning rod for critics of tech’s growing presence in the city. That tension is riling supporters of the Eviction Defense Collaborative and Tenants Together, one of whom sounded off on Facebook: “Remember when the city said that if it gave Twitter and other companies a tax break to move into mid-Market it wouldn't cause evictions?”
Tenants Together executive director Dean Preston says his organization is in negotiations for a space in the Tenderloin but declined to give further details. Cohen is now in the final stages of leasing an office on Mission Street between Ninth and Tenth streets. At more than $28,000 per month, the rent is easily double the $14,000 per month the collaborative is currently paying. And so the collaborative, with Tenants Together, is throwing what they’re calling an “eviction party” on December 2 to raise money to cover their new overhead. Cohen even sounds upbeat about the new space, which is larger than their current suite, closer to the courthouse, and offers more privacy for consultations. “In the long run, I think the move away from this building is going to be a good thing,” he says. Plus, the space the collaborative will almost surely move into is currently vacant. “I don’t think we’re displacing anyone where we’re going,” he says. “We feel very good about that.”
For Preston, the groups’ ouster is only the latest chapter in the story of the Hewes building, which used to be filled with nonprofits. “It’s a 15-story building that was almost entirely nonprofits,” he says. “At the end of the year there’ll only be one of those nonprofits left”—Compass Family Services, a resource center for homeless families.
Asked how many floors WeWork occupies, Preston wasn’t sure. “But I overheard WeWork’s rep orienting a new customer in the elevator,” he recalls. “They asked, ‘How many floors’? And he proudly said, ‘We have 11 now, but as of January we’ll have 13.’”